Go Green

This article explains everything you need to know about sustainable living. You’ll learn about the impact our choices have on the planet as well as our own health and the steps we can take to address the climate emergency. We also leave you with ideas about how we can create a better future for generations to come.

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The Problem

Climate change has already begun to shift global climate patterns and increase the global average temperature, which has risen by 1.15°C since 1880. Scientists have attributed much of these changes to anthropogenic (man-made) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, largely as a result of deforestation and fossil fuel combustion. While uncertainty exists in the climate models, evidence points to a world with warmer temperatures, rising sea level and more extreme weather events, among other physical changes. These, in turn, affect ecosystems by creating areas that are more hospitable to some forms of life and unfavourable to others.

Humans are vulnerable to both the physical and biological changes of this world. The heatwave that swept across Europe in 2003; the destruction experienced by Puerto Rico in 2017 from Hurricane Maria; the Black Saturday bushfires in Australia in 2009. These represent just a snapshot of natural disasters that have occurred around the world in recent years where significant loss of life occurred in addition to substantial ripple effects. Besides direct physical destruction, extreme weather events can also cause proliferation of vectors for disease, like mosquitos, or diminished crop yields and other sources of food.

Anthropogenic GHG emissions continue to rise in spite of the threat of climate breakdown. The growing population and its reliance on fossil fuels has put the world on a high-end emission pathway, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), where it will likely see a rise in global average temperature of over 4°C by 2100.

Extreme Weather Events

The frequency and severity of extreme weather events is increasing. Recent floods, cyclones, wildfires and heat waves have highlighted not only the damaging physical aspects of such events but also the social aspects. Vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, children, groups from low socioeconomic backgrounds and those with existing health ailments, generally experience much higher risks. People with heart disease, for example, are more likely to suffer from health complications, including heart attacks, during a heatwave. Natural disasters that have more visible physical effects, like floods, droughts and cyclones, can also take a major toll on people’s mental health from being displaced and/or losing employment.

Disease

Some parts of the world may become more susceptible to the spread of disease-carrying organisms as a result of climate change. “Temperature constrains the range of microbes and vectors, and weather affects the timing and intensity of disease outbreaks”. When people and vectors for disease either are displaced or migrate, the chances for epidemics increase. Deforestation further exacerbates this problem and has been linked to increased outbreaks of malaria, dengue and yellow fever, as well as new and emerging diseases, such as Zika, Nipah and hantavirus.

Furthermore, changes in biodiversity can alter ecosystem structures, which may no longer be able to keep the number of prey in check by predators. Ticks infected with Lyme disease, for instance, are spreading to the northern parts of Sweden because of the falling numbers of predators that prey on deer, and models predict similar patterns in North America.

Besides the indirect transmission through vectors, such as ticks, disease can also spread by way of contaminated food and water. The microbes that cause food- and water-borne illnesses, like salmonella and cholera, often thrive at higher temperatures. If food hygiene practices do not adapt to the rising global temperatures, more people are likely to fall ill and/or die. 

Resource scarcity

Climate change will also play a major role in resource availability, including food and clean water. Droughts have a direct effect on the amount of potable (drinkable) water available. Despite the perception that the UK is a rainy country, parts of the country are at risk of drought, especially the Southeast, which experiences less precipitation than the rest of the country and has a dense population of high water users. In countries like the UK, water shortages could result in water restrictions and costly infrastructure projects, like desalination plants, to reduce demand and increase supply, which would have knock-on social, environmental and wider economic impacts.

Land clearing has an indirect effect on climate change and the availability of potable water. Through the process of photosynthesis, plants convert carbon dioxide (CO2) to oxygen. With less vegetative cover, CO2 accumulates, exacerbating climate change. Excessive land clearing also has a significant effect on dryland salinity, where salts build up in the soil and seep into freshwater sources through a number of different pathways. Saline water is not potable and many plants cannot survive when salt accumulates. Dryland salinity, therefore, can also result in a loss of agricultural crops and increase food insecurity. A rise in sea level would produce similar effects.

Increasing temperatures around the world would initially have mixed outcomes for food production. In cooler, high latitudes, crop yields might be expected to increase in the next few decades, but continued heating would have a negative impact. Climate change, however, does not simply manifest as higher global temperatures. It would also contribute to “more volatile weather, vanishing pollinators, and the proliferation of pests and pathogens” that would have negative consequences for crop yields.

As a result of climate change, water bodies, too, are heating up. One concern with ocean warming is that it would increase concentrations of methyl mercury, particularly in fish populations. Because it is a bioaccumulant, piscivores may suffer from neurocognitive development associated with ingestion of methyl mercury.

Besides suffering from deprivation (dehydration, starvation) and/or exposure to toxins, conflict over scarce resources could increase the toll on human health. Escalating competition for sources of water or food could become violent, resulting in both physical and social trauma.

The Solutions (since there’s no silver bullet)

Though adaptation to this changing climate may be possible through technological breakthroughs, clever design, procedural changes and biological acclimatisation, climate change mitigation can bring with it additional benefits for human health. Greater physical activity through active transport, a diet rich in vegetables, better insulated and thermally regulated homes and cleaner air to breathe are all examples of co-benefits for human and environmental health. Moreover, these positive impacts on human health can be experienced almost immediately. The effects on climate change, on the other hand, would be experienced decades after action was taken because of the longevity of GHGs and the inertia in climate systems.

Energy Efficiency

To meet the UK’s target of net zero GHG emissions by 2050, energy efficiency will necessarily play a big role. The residential and public sectors account for 18% of the country’s CO2 emissions. Investment in measures like draught proofing and insulation will not only reduce the demand for heating (the majority of which currently comes from fossil-fuel based natural gas) but also increase occupants’ thermal comfort and savings on energy bills.

Energy efficiency improvements to housing would also prevent significant excess winter deaths – those that are attributed to the effects of the cold. Each year, tens of thousands of excess winter deaths are recorded in the UK. Cold weather increases the risk of cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, especially in vulnerable populations, and can have indirect negative impacts on mental health. The ability to heat properties adequately in the winter can literally be a life-saver.

Renewable Energy

Once we reduce the energy consumption of a home as much as possible, renewable energy can step in to further limit the carbon emissions associated with that home. Renewable energy comes from inexhaustible resources such as wind, flowing water, the sun and heat of the earth. In choosing renewable energy, not only do we reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and associated GHG emissions, new jobs in the renewable energy industries are created and potential financial incentives can help people who install renewables save or even earn money.

Options now exist to purchase renewable electricity directly from an energy supplier. A limited number of suppliers also offer “green gas”, which is made from a process called anaerobic digestion. Switching to a green energy tariff is fairly straightforward. Members of a community can also join forces to purchase a shared renewable energy system, like a solar farm, where that clean energy is distributed to those member households.

Certain properties may be suited to having their own low-carbon or renewable technologies installed, such as heat pumps and solar PV. Choosing a technology is highly dependent on the site, the property characteristics and the budget. Explore available technologies, find qualified contractors and search for financial incentives to install these systems.

Water

The average person in the UK uses 150 litres of water every day, which is more than twice the amount we used 25 years ago. The government’s target to reduce this by 20% by 2030. A combination of simple retrofits, including the addition of water butts and shower regulators, and behavioural changes, like taking quicker showers and fixing leaks, can help meet this target. Support for residents to save water is often available from water companies.

Installing a water meter can also help raise awareness of personal water consumption and encourage households to save water. If bills are unaffordable, you may be able to save money with discounted or capped water tariffs.

In addition to the water from our taps, everyone has a much larger indirect water footprint. This indirect water footprint refers to the amount of water used in producing our food and other items that we buy. For example, an 800g loaf of bread takes about 1,300 litres of water to produce – and a kilogram of beef takes 15,400 litres of water. Calculate your person water footprint.

Active Lifestyles

Since the Industrial Revolution, technology has saved us time and physical labour and, in many ways, improved our lives. From lifts to leaf blowers, we have, however, also engineered active choices out of everyday life. Insufficient physical activity is associated with 1 in 6 deaths in the UK. Sedentary ways of life increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, stroke, type II diabetes, colon and breast cancer, depression and may result in less inclusive and cohesive communities, which can impact mental health. Our increasing reliance on machines for transport has also created a transport sector that accounts for the majority of UK carbon emissions.

Active forms of transport, including walking, cycling and public transit, need to be part of the solution to the problem of inactivity and GHG emissions. Travelling by foot or bike burns calories but does not rely on additional fossil fuel energy sources. Taking the bus or train almost always requires walking (to/from stops, at interchanges), and though it may be powered by fossil fuels, the per-passenger energy cost from well-used public transport is still preferable to driving a car.

Controlling Pollution

Reduction of GHGs is typically accompanied by reductions in other substances such as sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter. Some carcinogens, including benzene, toluene and formaldehyde, may also be reduced when action to decrease GHG emissions is taken. Fossil fuel combustion, especially for energy generation and motor vehicle transport, is a significant source of air pollution. Air pollution is one of the top ten causes of disability and causes an estimated 700,000 deaths worldwide. Research found that “a daily increase of 20 ug/m3 in inhalable particular matter (PM10) increases the death rate by about 1%” and that “a 25 ug/m3 increase in lifetime average concentration of fine particles (PM2.5) in a city increases the overall total annual death rate by some 15%”. Air pollution, especially from transport, can result in respiratory and cardiovascular health issues and increased rates of certain cancers.

Direct inhalation of these pollutants is obviously harmful but the indirect effects can be just as dangerous. With elevated concentrations of CO2, more pollen is produced. In the presence of diesel particles, aeroallergens can be delivered deep into the lungs with resulting immune responses, such as asthma attacks.

Reducing GHG concentrations by limiting emissions is one of the ways to improve air quality. Most journeys made are under 5 miles and active transport could, in many cases, easily be used for these trips in place of cars. This has the added benefit of creating quieter and safer streets that are more community-focused. Not everyone, however, can part with their vehicles and, in such cases, an effort to increase fuel efficiency by carpooling, not idling, performing routine maintenance and minimising acceleration and braking (i.e., slow-and-steady is better than stop-and-go). Electric vehicles also have a place in addressing air quality.

Another way to reduce GHG concentrations is to introduce native vegetation, which can improve both air and water quality. Plants can also reduce energy demand and, since most energy is produced from fossil fuel sources, can therefore indirectly reduce GHG emissions. Exposure to nature has additional health benefits such as increased sense of well-being, greater satisfaction at home and in the neighbourhood and the ability to recover from mental fatigue.

By reducing GHG concentrations and other pollutants associated with particular point and nonpoint sources (e.g., power plants and vehicle emissions, respectively), the air becomes cleaner while slowing the rate of climate breakdown.

Healthy Diets

Much of the chronic disease around the world can be attributed to lifestyles dependent on fossil fuels. By decreasing the reliance on these sources of energy, the world could simultaneously keep its carbon budget in check and reduce the risk of disease.

A sustainable diet, however, is not as clear cut as it may initially sound and can take on a variety of meanings. Sustainable foods may be plant-based, seasonal, organic, local, palm oil free or low carbon. Buying locally sourced foods, for example, ensures food miles remain low, the food is often fresher because it spends less time in transit and more money is kept in the local economy.

There are also significant differences in energy requirements for the production of meat and vegetables/grains. The embodied GHG emissions in semi-vegetarian and vegetarian diets are 22% and 29% less than non-vegetarian diets, respectively. Examples of embodied sources of emissions include fertilisers and/or feeding practices, manure and other wastes from livestock, and transport.

The benefits of a vegetarian diet, however, are not limited to the health of the planet. Vegetarians benefit from reduced mortality rates and other positive health impacts, including “lower risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and some cancers”. The combination of excessive consumption and poor diet as well as high rates of inactivity – all arguably consequences of readily available and cheap fossil fuels, has seen obesity described as “a ‘carbon store’ on our waistlines”. Reducing consumption of animal food sources and overall caloric intake could significantly reduce the risk of many chronic diseases.

Regardless of dietary choices, one simple way to reduce food emissions is not to waste any. UK households waste more than 4.5 million tonnes of food each year. Not only are the wasted resources used in the production process a problem; food sent to landfill generates methane, which is a more potent GHG than CO2. Storing food properly, meal planning and using up leftovers can help minimise food waste, whilst composting any remaining organic material will produce “black gold” – a gardener’s dream!  

Refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, rot

Household waste contains all sorts of materials, including plastics, metals, paper and organic matter (e.g., food). Sending these items to landfill not only wastes the embodied energy of those items, it also puts a massive strain on the environment.

The waste hierarchy (refuse, reduce, reuse, repair, recycle, rot) is a framework that emphasises waste minimisation. Consider the following:

Refuse plastics with the Plastic Free July challenge

Love your leftovers to reduce food waste

Buy second-hand, refurbished or reused products whenever possible

Learn to darn socks, repair appliances or take items to a local Repair Cafe

Get to know your kerb-side collections (the green, blue and brown lidded bins as well as the grey boxes)

Compost any remaining organic matter (e.g., food, cotton)

Materials that cannot be removed from the waste stream using the above methods, such as cigarette butts and medical waste, should be properly disposed of to avoid damaging flora and fauna. Fats, oils and grease (FOGs) must also be added to general waste if they cannot be recycled, since pouring these down the drain can result in sewerage system problems, including fatbergs.

What Next

Avoiding the worst of the above-mentioned scenarios requires quick and decisive action on climate change. Fortunately, many of these actions can also have immediate benefits for human health. In other words, “low-carbon ways of living are healthy ways of living”.